Fixing C

C/C++ tools for code safety #

Dynamic analysis #

Valgrind #

  • On-the fly instrumentation of binaries
  • Works with all binaries compiled by all compilers, even without source code/debug symbols
  • Drawback: Not much information in binaries; no information about stack allocation (so no detection of stack buffer overflows)

LLVM sanitizers #

  • Instrumentation of source code
  • Provided by LLVM compiler suite (i.e., Clang)
  • More information because source code is instrumented rather than binaries


  • AddressSanitizer - finds improper memory addresses
  • LeakSanitizer - finds memory leaks
  • MemorySanitizer - finds uses of uninitialized memory
  • UndefinedBehaviorSanitizer - finds usage of null pointers, integer/float overflow, etc
  • ThreadSanitizer - finds improper uses of threads

Weaknesses of dynamic analysis #

  • Dynamic analysis can only report bad behavior that actually happened
  • Requires inputs which would cause bad behavior to be input to catch such behavior

Fuzzing #

  • Blind fuzzing: throw many random inputs at a program
  • Coverage-guided fuzzing:
  1. Take normal input, run it through the program, observe control flow
  2. Semi-randomly mutate the normal input
  3. Run program again and observe control flow
  4. Keep mutated inputs that changed control flow
  5. Return to step 2 with these kept inputs, infinitely

Common fuzzers: AFL and libfuzzer

Still cannot guarantee that a program is bug-free (if the fuzzer didn’t find anything in some amount of time, maybe we didn’t run it long enough)

Static analysis #

Linting #

  • Basic static analysis: simple techniques to find obvious mistakes
  • Person running linter can configure rules to enforce
  • ex. clang-tidy - can auto-fix some issues!

Dataflow analysis #

  • Walks through every branch of the abstract syntax tree looking for issues


  • False positives: dataflow analysis follows every branch, even if it’s impossible for some condition to be true in real life
    • If there are a lot of false positives (low signal-to-noise ratio), it’s difficult to actually figure out which issues pointed out are real problems
  • Many static analyzers only analyze a single file at a time, so some bugs won’t be found if they are split across files

Limitations of static analysis #

  • Hard to tell whether code is safe without broader context if we can only look at a few lines of code
  • Impossible to generally get broader context due to halting problem

How to verify small snippets of code in isolation without broader context?

  • This can be done adding a little bit of information to the code
  • This is what Rust does!